Support Services Struggle

By Jennifer Alvarez

Are the mass murder headlines of people suffering of mental illnesses making the stigma worse for those suffering from a mental disorder? Or is there more support to try and provide resources for people to seek help? It is so simple to state, after a terrible incident occurs by someone suffering from a mental disorder, that they should have been reported or kept an eye on once they were diagnosed with a mental disorder. Yet, within the different social classes are different privileges of being able to afford a psychiatrist visit, having access to support services or even having a family support system. When these privileges are available, it is more likely that someone suffering a mental disorder would feel comfortable talking about what is going on with them psychologically and emotionally.

It is difficult to understand the complexities of mental illnesses because many are unaware of the daily struggles of a person with a mental disorder. Mental disorders become more challenging to understand especially when psychiatrists are not culturally competent to their patients. Many marginalized groups report patients feeling that their doctors do not understand the psychological effects of experiencing discrimination. Marginalized groups are classified as oversensitive or chemically imbalanced because the doctor’s belief in a “post-racial” society, where racism no longer exists.

Within different families, cultures, ethnicities and religions, mental illness is perceived differently. In some cases, families are in denial of a family member in need of help because of the negative stigma associated with their beliefs towards mental illness. Yet one out four people suffer from a mental illness, while 50% of women who live with a mental illness experienced physical or sexual abuse. There is a serious need to prevent cycles of violence to survivors (victims), families, and communities in environments that contribute to mental health, trauma, and domestic violence.

Throughout detention centers, county jails and prisons, people with mental illnesses are overly represented. Many adults and youth suffering from various forms of trauma have led to their development of mental disorders and their behavior has resulted in their placement in detention centers, county jails, and prisons. Over the past decades these facilities have replaced the use of mental institutions where rehabilitation was the main focus. A prison environment is not the place to rehabilitate victims of trauma, prisons are used as a form of punishment, not rehabilitation.

There needs to be alternatives to incarcerating youth and adults suffering from mental illnesses.  By alternatives, I mean breaking the cycle of violence in the home, in the community and the negative stigma of other mental illnesses or disorders that run in a family. In order to take preventative measures for suicides, homicides, mass murders, or other violent crimes, committed by individuals who are dealing with trauma, they need to feel comfortable speaking up about what is going on with them from someone they know actually understands them, their family, and the community they come from.

The affordability, accessibility, and social capital for mental health services are the barriers that make it difficult to break the negative stigma of mental illnesses. There are issues of cultural competency and understanding the trauma in certain communities for patients suffering of mental illnesses. With a high prevalence of mental disorders among populations on probation, parolees, and those incarcerated, more support is needed towards alternatives to incarceration that help communities resolve the issues of violence in their community. Communities with parks, youth centers, and after-school programs for children and parents bring neighborhoods together to have the opportunity to discuss what their community is lacking, so that they can build a healthy community together rather than incarcerating people and breaking up families.

In Orange County, there are some mental health programs that focus on the entire family to build up protective factors for their children, the parents, caregivers, or any other family members staying with the family. This way resources and services needed are better identified. Through culturally competent services of outreach, support groups, educational workshops and presentations, one-on-one interventions, case management and retreats, the cycle of mental health goes from prevention to promotion among families and the community. When there is a support coming from people in the same community that share similar cultural values, it allows for people to understand they are not alone and there are resources available.

Jennifer Alvarez is a fourth-year public health policy major. She can be reached at jealvare@uci.edu.